Thursday, February 28, 2008


We left late. I blame the Spanish that were with us because they don't read this blog and you know how they are with time. At least, that's the excuse I'm sticking with. So, it wasn't until after three that we finally headed out of town in three white Toyota pickups piled with camping gear and headed toward the Gayo Highlands - more commonly referred to by us coastal lowlanders as, 'those mountains over there.'

We were attempting to reach Lake Tawar before nightfall but with a five hour drive this idea was quickly abandoned as we wound up steep hairpin turns hour after hour. It was not a drive for the faint-hearted (or stomached). The scenery gorgeous but a wrong move could send a truck of hurtling thousands of feet to the canyons below...a fact that I liked to remind those I was driving every time we ground to a halt at a 45 degree angle to shift into four wheel drive or went around a particularly precarious turn. It was calm, and cool winding through the mountains passing quiet villages clustered along the road, a few other travellers, and the illegal logging camps.

(You can almost hear them thinking: '1 hectacre down, 3 million to go...')

Lake Tawar sits at 3,000 feet above sea level in a the remains of an ancient volcano. They grow a lot of coffee and, according to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, it is home to one of the most recently discovered carnivorous plants - the Nepenthaceae. Not that we identified any - I wouldn't have known a Nepenthaceae from a wild fern, from the wild ginger, or miscellany of other thorny, stinging overgrowth and undergrowth. The lake was surrounded by scenery with an identity disorder. It couldn't decide if it was jungle or forest but either way it was beautiful.

Our campsite was at the edge of the lake up against a cliff about 10 meters from the lake.
Nothing I write will do the place justice so I will show you some pictures instead. Try to ignore the sombraro that turns up intermittently on just about everyone's head.

My very unsuccesful fishing...well, depending on your point of view. I suppose it was considered very succesful by the fish. Which is why we had chicken that evening. For all those squemish out there remember, food comes from somewhere.

Proof that I can, and do at times, cook. Even over a fire. That fishing boat you see in the background is the one reaping the benefit of my having lulled the fish into a false sense of security by my ineptitude.

Marcela wandering about the rice paddies looking lovely.

Darren attempting suave.

Iwan, not even attempting.

There is a line in the Black Crowes song, 'Soul Singing' that I think describes Takengon. 'Look around. Show me holy places not yet found'. The sense of the place, like many places on earth, was quiet and mystical and calm. And to be able to have seen so many of them...well, in the words of Velvet Elvis: Sometimes I can't believe I get to live this life.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Me and the Pope in dialogue with the world...

You know, as one normally does... on Vatican Radio. (Yes, the Pope's got his own station, apparently).

On the edge of awful things...

Our senior management had a great idea to take our cooks, cleaners, guards and drivers all out to the field today to see what all the project people had been doing all this time. They wanted the people who normally stay in the office to see how they contributed to something bigger. It was a great idea.

So, after a day of touring around houses and schools, meeting families and children and teachers they stopped at the floating fish ponds that I have previously described in another entry. But, instead of getting there in a canoe they put them on a raft. To make a long story short the raft flipped and trapped several of them underneath. Most couldn't swim. Some of those who dove in to try to save them couldn't swim. It was awful.

No one was drowned although there were some serious bad moments in which those who were managing the situation thought there might be. Everyone involved was traumatized and several in severe shock. Imagine having been through the tsunami and now this.

I used to think that awful things began horrifically. Cataclysmically. And I think they do when you are a participant, but when you are on the edge of awful things, when your job is to be close to them and to pick up as many of the pieces as quickly and as quietly as you can that you see that most awful things begin quietly. A text message that hints that everything is not all right; a calm voice on the other end of the phone that says, 'we have a situation'. Awful things do not strike you like lightning. They begin as an ebb and then grow to a swell that eventually becomes crushing until there is nothing left to do but sit with someone and hold their hand and cry.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Everything's fine...

The quake that struck this afternoon was powerful enough to get us out of our houses and quick. I was at one location and drove across town soon thereafter. There seemed to be no injury or structural damage, however, panic was ensuing. The streets became quickly clogged with people trying to get out of town as rumours of another tsunami spread. Things have calmed down a little now and we're all fine. does, again, highlight the fact that the tsunami warning system is an utter failure and that the NGOs have far more information than the local populous who are most in danger of injury in a tsunami - or injury in the ensuing mad crush of panic even if there isn't one.

Interestingly, I did interviews with both BBC and SkyNews but was told to standby for live as they were simply 'monitoring the story to see if it develops'. In media-speak that is, 'waiting to find out if enough people die to make it interesting.'

And thanks to everyone who has sent e-mails and texts. I'm fine!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Super Chicken...

When those conversations start about 'what super hero you would be' I always find myself at a loss. I mean, Wonder Woman, Bat Girl, the Bionic Woman. They're all great but they're not really me. But now, a friend has introduced me to the super hero I would be. (And not just because he drinks a martini to turn into the super hero either...I don't think)

Here's the theme song for you.

Good luck and godspeed, Kosovo

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some light reading...

So I was doing a little brushing up on Somalia because, well, it never hurts to be well-informed about Somalia, and I came across this sentence in the Wikipedia article that caused me to laugh out loud:

"In June 2006, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism warlords lost Mogadishu after several months of sporadic fighting."

The 'peace and counter-terrorism warlords'. Can someone tell me how that works exactly?

"Hey, who are you? Me? I'm a peace warlord!"

Thursday, February 14, 2008

You should go here...

Do you ever just want to know random stuff for no reason except that it's kinda just fun knowing stuff? Ok, maybe it's just me. But you really should visit this webpage - . Perhaps even on multiple occasions. It won't hurt you but it might cut into the time spent on facebook. That's a cost you'll have to weigh.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The next 'idol' show...

I came home from work and American Idol was on. Now, I loathe these reality shows and their seemingly endless proliferation. I don't care who the next top model/superstar/designer whatever is going to be. They bug me. They're inane. They're boring. They're mindnumbing. But it was either that or BBC so I choose went for the most mind-numbing option. After about an hour of BBC (kidding! hah! oh, I kill me!), after an hour of American Idol I couldn't take any more and went upstairs where I suddenly heard all the Mullah's mullah-ing the evening prayer call. Now, one thing that is not lacking in this town is mosques. There's literally about one every other block and the prayer call is cacophany of voices calling over loudspeakers. They might 'claim' that they're not in competition with each other but I don't believe it. You can almost hear the joy in their voices if they get a new, louder loudspeaker.

Now, I'm a big fan of the prayer call. I think it's beautiful and I think it's good that people are reminded five times a day to stop their mundane lives and think beyond themselves - whether their Muslims, Christians, atheists, whatever. The prayer call is a good thing. However, I think it requires a bit of organization. I think we should we should incorporate some of what we've learned on American Idol and come up with one Mullah per town. And we could do that with a reality show that eliminates the competing Mullahs until you've got the 'one' who does the prayer call.

Can't you see it now?

Paul Abdul: "You know. You know I really, really like you and I think you have what it takes but this evening's call just didn't do it for me. You brought it this morning but it was just gone tonight."

Simon: "Who are you kidding? That was the worst prayer call in the history of this show! You're awful. You never should have never made it this far."

Other judge guy: "I'm going to let you stay but you're going to have to remember that you're going up against some stiff competition. You've got the blue tiled Mosque Mullah and he's been at this a long time. And you've got the Grand Mosque Mullah over there for goodness' sakes. So if you want to stay in this you're going to have to bring it next time."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

McDonalds and Me...

Sierra and I waved down a taxi not far from the train station. ‘Bonjour!’ I chippered in French. I try to be chipper in languages I can barely speak. I think it makes up for barely speaking them.

‘McDonalds en Canet Plage’.

He narrowed his eyes. ‘Where?’

‘Ummm, McDonalds, un restaurant dans Canet Plage.’ I am also a firm believer in switching up the prepositions in languages I speak badly. Sometimes it helps.

He nodded, so apparently it did, and we drove for about 15 minutes through south of France toward the sea. We were supposed to be meeting up with the woman from whom we were renting an apartment for the week. The driver pulled into the driveway and we paid him and grabbed our bags. With a certain panache he swept out to open Sierra’s door for her. ‘Bon appetit!’ he said with flourish.

I was mortified when it dawned on me what the taxi driver must have been thinking. Two American girls arrive at the train station and are so desperate for hideous processed food in a land that filled with epicurean delights they are willing to pay 30 euros to have a taxi drive them 15 minutes to a McDonalds in the middle of nowhere.

This all made me think more about McDonalds. I like to think that I avoid them like the plague whilst overseas but do I really? Last summer I had just arrived in Paris coming by overnight train from Italy and I was overcome by a need to eat at McDonalds. I needed French fries and a shake. It’s embarrassing but true. The friend with me planted her feet and said, ‘No!’ No! You cannot make me do that walk of shame!’ But I did.

I’ve been in McDonalds in more cities than I care to imagine - Moscow, London, Delhi, Bangkok. I was just in one in Singapore two days ago. Oh, I tell myself that it was only because it was Chinese New Year and nothing else was open. But is that really the reason? Maybe this is indicative of a larger problem. Do I have some sort of subconscious McDonalds addiction? Am I ‘that’ American abroad? These are horrifying questions to have to ask yourself, believe me. Cause what do you do if the answer is 'yes'?

The funniest thing happened to me in Singapore...

That statement alone is odd because Singapore is not the place where funny things happen to you. Funny things happen to you in Bangkok or Madrid. Beijing, Siberia, and Mali. But funny things don’t normally happen to you in Singapore. They call it ‘Asia Light’ precisely because funny things don’t happen to you. It’s the place with clean streets, low crime, and posters praising the virtues plastered everywhere. It’s the place with medical care in the airport. So, you would think that I would be delighted to be stranded here. But I am not. I have nothing to do. All the shops are closed. Even Starbucks is closed - if that gives you any indication of how dire the situation is. This means that I cannot get my visa and have to stay here for five days instead of one. I am not happy and want to tell someone and who should I happen to immediately run into? The Prime Minister. I kid you not. I turn away from the ticketing counter to the empty reservations hall and there is an enormous entourage of people headed toward me.

‘Who’re they?’ I ask.

‘The prime minister,’ the ticketing agent says.

‘Of the country?’


‘At the airport? On a national holiday?’

‘He likes to do those sorts of things.’

‘He likes to hang out at the airport on his days off?’


That was clearly the most absurd thing I’d heard in a long time and saw that there was no point in venting my frustration at his national holiday schedule as the man was clearly not in his right mind. Instead, I pushed my way upstream through his crowd to the taxi queue to get to my hotel. I arrived promptly at 9.45am. Check-in is at 2pm. I haven’t slept for 23 hours. I have a cold. And, I have nothing to do but wander the closed up streets of Singapore for four hours and try to entertain myself. I wander until I find a park bench. Time to e-mail. Singapore has got WIFI practically everywhere. Unfortunately, my battery was dead. So, I began to scour the back alleys of a quaint little dining plaza called Robertson Quays hoping to run into an outlet. I’m not proud. I’ll steal electricity from anyone. But I find nothing. So I go more and more off the beaten path until I end up in a back alley that leads either (I never figured out which) to the janitor’s workroom, the public bathrooms, or a Chinese canteen. I suspect by the clientele that moved through it was all three. Now, to my point (can you sense my boredom here?):

I never cease to be amazed at what you can get away with if you look like you belong someplace. But looking like you belong somewhere doesn’t come naturally. You can’t be too brazen or too demure. You must simply appear as though you have done or been (what/where ever it is) everyday of your life and you’re bored with it. Because, if you did belong wherever you are trying to pretend you do, you probably would be bored with it. So, as I stood there in the alley-way at the back of the janitor’s room/bathroom/canteen I tried to appear as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me, an obvious foreigner, standing there in the alley with the laptop bag open on the sticky, dirty floor charging my computer. It was frightening how well it worked. A couple of the janitors didn’t even give me a second glance. A couple of the cooks – complete with big bellies hidden away under greasy white aprons and cigarettes attached to their lower lip – just gave me the ‘whas up?’ nod. I nodded back. No one though it was odd that I was there. This still amazes me.

Well, that took up a good 20 minutes of my life. Only 3 hours and 40 minutes to go…

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I have a new boyfriend...

His name is Shari'a Law. Perhaps you've met him. He gets around. We've been living together for the past two years, Shari'a and me.

Now, of course, I'm not literally dating a legal system but that's sure what it feels like on R&R. When I go shopping and browse through all the cute short sleeve tops and skirts. I'd like to try them on but won't even bother. Why tempt myself? Shari'a wouldn't approve. Shari'a doesn't like it when I show my arms or legs. He's not so thrilled about my head being uncovered but has learned not to say anything. On holiday when I go out to restaurants I order a beer and bacon burger first thing. Shari'a doesn't like me to drink or eat pork. He's kind of a downer, in fact.

"It's your own fault," my friends say. "Move away," they say. And I should but most of the places I where I would think to go, he'd be there waiting for me. Unfortunate, but true. So, I guess I have to make peace with Shari'a and try to get along.